Introduction

If you've just stumbled onto this blog, please forgive the appearance; it's still under construction. If I've used one of your photos (found on Google) in a lecture and you don't approve, please write a comment and I'll remove it.

The purpose of this blog is to explain the basics of art and culture to English language learners in secondary school in Slovakia. This is not for profit. If you look to your right, you'll see a long list of topics that I plan to cover. This is a large project that will most likely take years to complete, covering some topics I know little about (like dance), so I will be borrowing heavily from other experts, with their permission, giving credit wherever possible. Please be patient, and, of course, all advice is greatly appreciated.

Monday, September 15, 2014

What is Art? 3 - Historical Background


Historical Perspectives of Art
 
1. Who said, "Art is skill"?

self-portrait, Da Vinci
 
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) believed that art was a science, a set of skills to be learned and taught like a science.
 
Larry Shiner argued the opposite in his book, The Invention of Art: A Cultural History (2003). He said, up until 18th century, art equaled skill. But afterwards, the definition changed, so we shouldn't think of anything made before 1700 as Art with a capital A. He's not criticising older artworks, but he wants us to remember the context in which they were made.
 
2. Who said, "Art is Mimesis"?

 
Plato (428-347 BC) believed that art is the process of copying nature, and the result will never be as real or true as real life, whether it's a painting, sculpture, or theatrical play. Basically, even the best art is a lie.

 
Aristotle (384-322 BC) argued, that, while art isn't real, it can be a great way to teach the audience, because stories and plays are more emotional, and moving than a history textbook. As Picasso said thousands of years later, "Art is a lie that tells the truth."

John Ruskin, by John Everett Millais

John Ruskin (1819-1900), artist and critic, felt that the artist's job was to mirror nature. He told artists to "go to Nature in all singleness of heart... rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing." Unlike Plato and Aristotle, he felt a realistic picture did tell the truth, even if it's not real.
 
Clement Greenberg (1909-1994), critic, made the opposite argument to defend abstraction, saying that realist pictures make you forget that it's just a painting, whereas abstract paintings emphasize it - the flat surface, the shape of the canvas, and the marks of colour.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), said, "Art is not merely an imitation of the reality of nature, but in truth a metaphysical supplement to the reality of nature, placed alongside thereof for its conquest." So, art, no matter what style, is a strategy some people use to try to conquer reality, to remake the world into something more satisfying.

3. Who said, "Art is Beauty"?

Marc Chagall, by Yuri Pen

Marc Chagall (1887-1985), a modernist painter, said, "Art is the unceasing effort to compete with the beauty of flowers––and never succeeding."

Roger Scruton (1944-the Present) is a philosopher who says art should be about beauty, that beauty is noble, and that life is meaningless without it. He says beauty is caring about things other than yourself, like the joy of holding a baby, when you put all your attention to contemplating the baby, and none on yourself. He considers modern art ugly, creating a "spiritual desert".

Nietzsche agreed, stating, "The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude."

Marcel Duchamp, by Kay Bell Reynal

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) was the most famous Dadaist artist. He disliked the idea of beautiful art, which he called "retinal art". He wanted art to engage the mind, and not just be eye candy. His works were called anti-art. They were a form of social and political protest.
 
4. Who said, "Art is Expression"?


"Art is the physical result of your soul battling with your intellect to the death... with a sharp pencil." - Ilaekae


Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) said that art could be defined as being separate from science. Science was the collection and study of knowledge, while art was about free expression.

Leo Tolstoy, by Ilya Repin
 
Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) said that art is the transference of emotion from artist to audience. In this definition, the response of the audience is critical. If they don't feel the same emotion as the artist/writer, then the work is a failure.

Edgar Degas, by Giovanni Boldini
 
Edgar Degas agreed, saying, "Art is not what you see, but what you make others see."

And, Jeremy Blomley also agreed, saying, "Art is like throwing a small pebble into a placid ocean, and somewhere across the sea you hope it creates a large wave. I sit and wait for it to come back to me.”
 
Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) & RG Collingwood (1889-1943), two philosophers, argued that because art conveys emotion to the viewer, art exists not in the object, but in the mind of the beholder. It's like the question, if a tree falls in the woods and nobody can hear it, does it make a sound?
 
William Wimsatt (1941-Present) & Monroe Beardsley (1915-1985) disagreed. These philosophers co-authored an essay The Intentional Fallacy, stating a story must stand alone, without any description of the writer's intentions. Neither his intentions, nor the reader's emotional response matter in the success of a story. They were talking about literature, but it could be applied to art.
 
5. Who said, "Art is Original"?


John F. Carlson (1875-1947) was a Swedish-American painter who said, "Convention is craft. Invention is art. In art, knowledge assists invention."

Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), a French filmmaker said, "An original artist is unable to copy. So, he has only to copy to be original."

6. Who said, "Everything is Art"?
 
Marcel Duchamp once said that everything is art, but that society only classifies certain things as art. So, from a social perspective, art is relative, but everything has the potential to be called art.


Michel Foucault (1926-1984), a philosopher, said, “What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or to life. That art is something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are artists. But couldn't everyone's life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?”
 
7. Who said, "Art is Useless"?


Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) said, "The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless." This is actually a compliment. Art must be great if people treasure it, even though it serves no practical purpose. Another way to think of it is, “Art is the most elegant way of getting from point A to point B.” It's not the most practical, but the most pleasing. Roger Scruton agrees.
 
8. Who said, "Art is Relative"?
 
Richard Wollheim (1923-2003) a philosopher, argued that the culture we live in, and the particulars of our psychology influence how we look at art.
 
George Dickie (1926-Present) - claimed that art is defined by institutions, such as museums, galleries, and magazines, that choose whether something deserves the status. This is called the Institutional Theory of Art.
 
David Novitz, another philosopher says controversies surrounding post modern, conceptual art have more to do with the quality of the work than art theory. If people like something, it's art. If they don't, then it's not, and people rarely explain why with any logic.
 
9. Who said, "Art is a Visual Metaphor"?
 
Kev Ferrara & Chris Bennett - two practicing artists and illustrators use this definition to unify all picture making and sculpting that's done by hand, leaving the mark and the thought process of the artist. What makes it art isn't so much what you draw or paint, but the process.
 
"The primary metaphor in painting is between the surface and its physical paint marks and how they become apples on plates, windows, or people nailed to crosses. It’s not what it is a picture of, but how it is a picture of. That’s why two people can paint the same apple and one version is full of life and poetry while the other is just a listless indication of an apple." - Chris Bennett
 
"[a painter] working from life, often without realizing it, will be creating metaphoric effects for volume, presence, heat, air, humidity, sounds, smells, skin radiance, subtle movement, breath, changing light over time, the model's thoughts in her eyes, a change in mood, a momentary breeze, a blush, a leg that's falling asleep, gravity, one's own intensity under time pressure, mutual acknowledgment between artist and sitter, hair standing on end because of a brief chill, etc. All of which are almost never talked about because they are nearly impossible to quantify and teach. Human sensitivity is what is beyond the basics found in books. All a camera notices is a split instant of light and makes no emotional distinctions between the light from a face and the light from a vase." - Kev Ferrara
 
Billy Childish & Charles Thomson - are two British artists who founded an art movement called Stuckism, to promote figurative painting which they call "anti-anti-art", and harshly criticizing conceptual art. In their manifesto, they say, "Artists who don't paint aren't artists."
 
10. Who said, "Art is a Human Response to an Inhuman World"?
 
As much as I'd like to take credit for saying this, Aristotle said much the same thing, that it's human nature to create order and harmony from chaos. It's a basic human need.

What is Art? 2 - Definitions

This is a debate that will go on forever. Most artists try to avoid it. Here’s a quote from two professional illustrators:
 
Tristan Elwell, “You will find that most pro’s would rather swallow live rats and have them gnaw their way back out than get involved in discussions like this.”
 
Kev Ferrera, “The entire history of modern art hinges on the question what is Art?  If the question isn’t important, then modern art isn’t important. But it is important, so the question must be important. Personally, I care and think about the question, and it has informed my work measurably.”
 
Tristan Elwell, “It might be intellectually stimulating to invite the Jehovah’s witnesses in for tea and discussion once or twice, but after a while you just want to start opening the door stark naked.”
 
 Having started with that, here are some common opinions:
 
1. Art is Skill

Bait, by Alyssa Monks

This is how most people define art. You hear this all the time. “If I can do it, it's not art. Wow, I could never do that! That’s art!” People who say this get confused when they see modern art in a museum. They say, “My five-year-old could do that! That’s not art!”
 
The problem with this definition: There are two. First, in art there are many skills levels, so there’s a grey area. How much skill do you need before your work can be called Art, and who decides? At what point does an artwork cross over from being bad:

I did this as a teen.

to being "not art":

by Bjarne Melgaard
(Sorry, I don't know the title. I tried a Google image search and the pictures were so disturbing I didn't want to scroll through it at work. Also, note, I'm only saying this doesn't pass the skill test, not that it's not art.)

Second, is skill all that matters in art? Is it really just a contest?
 
2. Art is Mimesis (Realism)

Ginza Line 2, Tokyo, by Robert Gniewek
(This is a photorealist painting, exactly copying a photograph)
 
This means art is realistic – it should look like something. This is what most people mean when they think of skill. They say, “Wow! That painting looks like a photo!”
 
The problem with this definition: If all that matters in art is copying nature, why draw or paint? Why not just take photos and make videos? There has to be more to art than just rendering. As painter Stapleton Kearns says, “You can’t observe composition into your painting.” Plus, is it really fair to say that all non-representational work isn't art?

Sun & Planets, by Auguste Herbin
 
3. Art is Beauty


You also hear this often. “Oh wow, that’s beautiful!” It’s impressive when an artist achieves great beauty in his art. It usually involves more than simply copying what you see.
 
The problem with this definition: First of all, there are many beautiful things in the world that people don’t consider art – a sunset, waves crashing on the beach, a beautiful person, etc. Secondly, Is beauty all there is to art?
 
Bust of a Woman, by Pablo Picasso

I think we can all agree that this painting is not beautiful. It's not very flattering. But it is fascinating. This isn't how we typically see people, so what does it mean that her nose and eyes connect to make such a strange T shape? Is that a hat on her head, and what significance do the yellow and green colours have? This is a work filled with mystery - commentary that speaks to us, and teases us. Here's another:

The Ugly Duchess, by Quentin Matsys

Don't you want to know the story behind this work? So far as I know, no one really knows who this woman was, or what she really looked like. I would say it's art for the same reason. It fills me with wonder, however comical.
 
4. Art is Expression

Germany's Children Starve, by Kathe Kollwitz

As in, a form of communication. Artists speak to the viewer through their work.
 
The problem with this definition: Just like beauty, there are many forms of expression that we don’t consider art, like when you hurt your foot and curse. You might kick a wall and leave a mark, but is it art? So, how do you separate expression that is art from expression that isn't? There's also the question of whether viewers understand what you wanted to express. What if you want your art to have hidden meanings? Is it a failure when people don't get it?

5. Art is Original

Armor for a cat, by Jeff de Boer

People value original ideas. This is why so many modern artworks are popular in museums today. They were the first to have their ideas.

Orange, Yellow, Red, by Mark Rothko

The problem with this definition: First of all, just because an idea is new, doesn't mean it's a good one.


There's a difference between originality and gimmickry:

a microscopic 3D-printed figure, by Jonty Hurwitz

Then, there are other complications. Some artists, like Rembrandt and Goya are famous for printmaking - each picture is an original artwork, even though there are many copies.

St. Jerome Sitting by a Tree, by Rembrandt van Rijn

Then, there's classical music, where musicians play someone else's work, but add their own interpretation. There are countless examples in visual art where artists do the same thing - original interpretations of earlier styles, and subjects. But, we typically call it art unless an exact copy is made (plagiarism), or if the artist lies and claims it was made by another, more famous artist (forgery).
 
6. Everything is Art
Some people appreciate the beauty in a sunset, waves on the beach, a person’s smile, etc., and they feel it should be considered art, just like a painting. They feel you can find something special and beautiful in everything around you, and it doesn’t have to be made by hand. I used to say that my favourite work of art was the Earth.
 
The problem with this definition: First of all, most people would disagree. How can a sunset be an artwork if it doesn’t last? Can art exist for only a moment? And sunsets aren’t made by people. So who’s the artist? God? Nature? And does nature even know what it’s doing when it produces a sunset? Does it mean anything? There’s no answer to this question, but it does raise another question.
 
Why call anything art? What’s the point?
One reason is linguistic. We name things so the world makes sense. How much sense does it make to say, “Wow, look at that puddle in the street! What a beautiful work of art! Look at the line of slime made by that snail. It’s art!” If everything is art, then do you even need the word? In fact, some cultures don’t have a word for art, as it’s tied into everything they do.
            Another reason is that when you call something art, you’re making a value judgement. Art is something people respect. It’s special. It’s a label that people love to use, even when it doesn’t fit. In any profession, whether it’s a cook, a banker, a mechanic, a car salesman, you will find someone who describes what they do as an art form.
So, is everything art? That’s for you to decide, but here’s food for thought. Illustrator Ben Stahl once said, “Nature is everything but an artist. Only a human can appreciate art. Only a human can create art.” I wouldn’t rush you to agree or disagree, but think about it.
 
7. Art is Useless (Neužitočný)

“The only reason for an artwork to exist is that it be excellent.” - Stapleton Kearns
 
This is a definition some artists use to try to keep art simple. If something is useful, it’s a craft.


The Birth of Venus, by Hodgett, Richardon, & Sons

If you have a vase, and you use it to hold flowers, it’s not art. If you put it on a pedestal and only look at it, then it is art. A blanket on your bed is a craft. Hang it up on a wall, and it’s art.
 
a quilt from Kentucky, circa 1890-1910.

The problem with this definition: First of all, is any art really useless? Scientists who study evolution are quick to point out that a painting might not fix a flat tire, but it can make you more attractive, and there are many similar scenarios in the animal kingdom, like a peacock's feathers.
Second, this definition doesn’t always make sense. You would think an object is a work of art, no matter where it's put, or how it's used. How can the placement of an object change its definition? It’s ridiculous, and it leads logically to the next definition.
 
8. Art is relative. It’s whatever you want it to be.

You hear this a lot with post modern and contemporary art. It’s a way of encouraging experimentation. With this definition, if you want to put a water bottle on a pedestal, that’s your art. If you want to film someone shooting you in the arm with a pistol, that’s your art.

Shoot, by Chris Burden

If you want to lay down a big orange rug, and let people walk on it, that’s your art.

Untitled (Orange Carpet on Floor), by Rudolf Stingel

Some artists see this as empowering, giving them total freedom. In theory this also leads to variety in art, so everyone can find something they like.
 
The problem with this definition: It’s not really a definition, is it? There’s no agreement, no consensus. To quote painter Chris Bennett, “So, when one person says something is art, and another says it’s not... what is it? Both things at the same time? Half art, half not art? Neither?”
And who’s right, by the way? Is every definition arbitrary (subjektívny)? or is there one right answer? This is one of the major questions in the art world today, and in many ways has created a crisis. Illustrator Ben Carman says, “The word ‘art’ has lost its power.”
 
9. Art is Visual Metaphor

This is the response that illustrators Kev Ferrera and Chris Bennett hope will make art important again. The idea here is that every mark is two things at once – strokes of colour on a surface, and the illusion of a picture, whether representational or abstract. And, every mark and stroke is the product of a conscious decision by the artist. This definition tries to tie together everything that’s right about the previous ones: Everything that makes a work of art impressive, expressive, one-of-a-kind, and revealing about the artist.
 
The problem with this definition: It’s not so much a definition of Art as of drawing and painting. Photography doesn’t fit this definition, because there’s no sign of the artist’s hand in the picture. Too much control is given over to a machine. So, photography isn’t art? Here’s one opinion:
 
We say ‘take a photo’ versus ‘make a picture.’ To take implies that something is already there and only needs a camera to be pointed at it, whereas ‘to make’ implies that someone has to build up something that isn’t already there. The way drawing works is that you think/feel/sense something, and then you make a mark which embodies that thought/feeling/sense. This doesn’t occur in photography.
 - Armando N
 
You may disagree with Armando. I have two problems with what he said. First, if photography isn’t art, what is it? An artist like Armando would say it’s journalism, but I don’t think that’s always true.


Secondly, what about collage – the art of cutting up photos and pasting them together? Artists used to do this by hand, but now it’s mostly done digitally. Often times you can’t tell a photo is a collage.

Two Paths, by Michal Karcz

So when is it art? The answer I got is, the more present the hand of the artist, the more Art it is. In other words, there are levels of Art. It’s the same problem Chris Bennett referred to about “half art, half not art, etc.” Imagine the same problem applied to drawing. How many marks does it take before you can call a drawing a work of art? Does adding more marks make it more Art?
 
10. Art is a human response to an inhuman world
 
This is how I like to explain art. It doesn't really categorize what is or isn't art, but I don't think that matters. What matters is why people make it, and the answer, more often than not is pain. The real world is rough, and art is one of the many things we do to make it better, a way to relax and to think at the same time. If you want to understand art, this is the best way to think about it.
            Artist Michael Mentler says, "I look at what I do as play, if I looked at it as work nothing would get done. Skill sets to me are like toys, I like to play with them until I get tired of them and then I need a couple of new ones. I am a hoarder of skill sets and techniques. I need new ingredients every time I approach a new work."